Two months after the deadliest prison riot in Oklahoma history, the company in charge of that facility received a nearly $100,000 check from a state program designed to reward job creation.
The company — now known as CoreCivic, but formerly branded Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA — is a Tennessee-based company that manages dozens of prisons and correctional facilities across the nation. That includes eight in Oklahoma and two in the Tulsa area.
As it turned out, that $93,646.76 payment to CCA from Oklahoma’s Quality Jobs program was the last of 23 checks written to the company over the span of nearly six years. The contract between CCA and the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, dated Aug. 4, 2008, called for a 10-year partnership to create a minimum of 170 new jobs. It also called for the company to retain a baseline of 250 employees in the state.
By the last few months of 2015, CCA had fallen behind on the number of jobs needed to qualify for the program, Oklahoma Tax Commission spokeswoman Paula Ross said.
In total — despite the deadly riot at Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing in Sept. 2015, and another large riot at the facility in June 2015 — records show more than $2 million was paid to CCA through the program beginning in March 2010.
Oklahoma ACLU director Ryan Kiesel called private prisons “reprehensible” and said Oklahoma should make a point not to “prop up” that industry.
“Private prisons are reprehensible institutions that profit off of Oklahoma’s misery,” Kiesel said. “Their corporate leadership is counting on Oklahoma to fail its people. Anyone who is betting against Oklahoma should not be receiving a dime of our tax dollars, but they especially shouldn’t qualify for a tax incentive to do so.”
The riot, CCA’s history in Tulsa
The Sept. 12, 2015, riot at Cimmaron Correctional Facility left four inmates dead and sent several to the hospital.
The prison has a capacity of just fewer than 1,700 inmates, and its section on the CCA website boasts of a few awards, including a recognition for “Best Performance in Safety” from 1998. There are no awards listed from this century.
The riot — a knife-fight between members of the Irish Mob and United Aryan Brotherhood battling over drug distribution, lasted only minutes, according to Oklahoma Department of Corrections officials.
But that was enough time for Michael Mayden, 26; Christopher Tignor, 29; and Kyle Tiffee, 23, to be stabbed to death. Another inmate, Anthony Fulwider, died at an area hospital not long after the riot.
Three other inmates — Jared Cruce, 33; Jesse Hood, 31; and Cordell Jonhson, 24, were hospitalized but survived.
It was not the first violent incident at a CCA prison, and generally speaking, violence is not uncommon at all-male correctional facilities.
In June 2015, only a few months before the deadly brawl, a riot broke out at the Cushing prison between members of the Indian Brotherhood and the Hoover Crips gangs. The fight, which DOC said involved between 200-300 prisoners, resulted in criminal charges against three men, though it took nearly a year and a half for prosecutors to sort out the particulars of who was involved.
It appears no charges have been filed in connection with the deadly September 2015 riot. Months after it happened, prosecutors told the Tulsa World that it would likely take quite a while before charges were filed, if, in fact, they were filed at all. The chaos and large number of inmates involved make filing a winnable case difficult, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors in Payne County, home of the Cimmarron Correctional Facility, did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Frontier.
CCA has been a controversial corrections company for years. The company has been sued numerous times over such things as prison deaths, detainee welfare, record falsification, and poor staffing levels.
Public interest in the company soared last summer when Mother Jones, an online investigative news website, posted a lengthy story written by Shane Bauer, who worked undercover at a CCA prison for several months in 2014.
Bauer said he didn’t hide his background on his application, and said he would have divulged his status as a journalist if he was ever asked. Instead, he was quickly promoted, something he said in the story was likely due to the difficulty the company was having in hiring enough corrections officers.
Bauer’s story detailed the relationships between guards and prisoners at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana, where he worked. Bauer was eventually outed and fled, but not before he saw a number of prison attacks and became close with both guards and prisoners.
But CCA has persevered despite the difficulty of managing correctional facilities, and bills itself as the “largest private corrections company” in the United States. Last year, after President Barack Obama announced the federal government would no longer contract with private prisons, and his attorney general said “time has shown that (private prisons) compare poorly to our own bureau facilities,” CCA’s stock price plummeted.
But since Donald Trump’s election victory in November, things have been looking rosey again. A CBS News story from earlier this month said CCA’s stock price has doubled since Trump, who signaled a desire to return to private prison use, was elected. Since CCA has “a lot of idle beds,” the story said, they appear poised to possibly fill those beds under Trump and enjoy substantial growth.
Sure enough, on Thursday night, Trump advisor Steve Bannon outlined a plan to erase Obama’s previous order on private prisons.
What is the Quality Jobs program
Outside of providing specifics about how CCA qualified for the Quality Jobs program, the Oklahoma Department of Commerce did not comment on the company directly. Nor did CCA offer comment on its inclusion in the program.
The Quality Jobs Program bills itself as giving “qualifying companies quarterly cash rebates of up to five percent of newly created taxable payroll,” spokeswoman Leslie Blair said in an email.
“Companies are only paid for jobs they create,” Blair said. “If they don’t create the new jobs, they don’t receive payments.”
More than 789 Oklahoma companies have reaped more than $1 billion in “wage rebates” since the program originated in the 1990s under then-Gov. David Walters. Companies like CCA are required to create at least $2.5 million in “new payroll” within three years of the first payment by the state. The program refunds up to 5 percent of the cost of new jobs created for a span of up to 10 years.
The contract between the ODC and CCA called for the new CCA jobs to average at least $27,393 a year, and at least 80 percent of the new jobs had to be filled by workers working at least 30 hours each week.
The more than $2 million paid out to CCA over the years is a relative drop in the bucket compared to some of the larger payouts. Some opponents of the Quality Jobs program have referred to it as “corporate welfare,” and the program has handed out massive amounts of money to some businesses.
For instance, earlier this month “The Professional Basketball Club, LLC,” the name of the group that owns the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team, was refunded more than $850,000. But even that amount was dwarfed by the check written to the team last November totaling $2,506,771.51.
Other companies receiving large refunds in 2016 included Boeing, which has received more than $9 million since the start of 2016, Devon Energy (more than $4 million), and Tulsa’s Holly Frontier refining company.
Critics of the Quality Jobs program have questioned its effectiveness in actually bringing new jobs to the state, though most economists praise the program.
While CCA reaped benefits, DOC suffered harsh cuts
The $2 million in reimbursement money handed over to CCA might not seem like a lot, considering Oklahoma has faced nearly billion-dollar budget failures in each of the last two years.
But when it comes to prison funding, every little bit helps.
“The guys we have working at DOC make $12 an hour; they haven’t had a raise in a decade,” Sean Wallace, policy director for the Oklahoma Public Employees Agency, said. “DOC is already having to cut so much money from their budget and they have probably half-a-billion dollars in needs. CCA is not going to leave without these payments; meanwhile, DOC could really use every little bit possible.”
Wallace, who used to work for Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, said CCA has likely received more than a billion dollars since coming to Oklahoma to run private prisons.
Though CCA did fit the criteria for membership in the Quality Jobs Program, Wallace said, “it absolutely makes no sense” to hand them tax money while DOC suffers.
Earlier this week, after Oklahoma announced a $878 million budget failure, DOC Director Joe Allbaugh lamented a nearly $3 million dollar cut to his agency’s budget.
“Our state prisons are severely understaffed, well over capacity and have in excess of $2 billion in infrastructure needs,” Allbaugh said in an email. “The result may come at an increased risk to public safety. Further, I don’t believe in furloughs or putting this on the backs of our employees.
“Just like last year, we will come up with a plan that is in the best interest of keeping our employees, the facilities and the public’s safety at a premium.”
Not a fan of private prisons, Allbaugh said last year that he viewed facilities like the ones run by CCA as a way to release pressure from Oklahoma’s overcrowded state prisons.
Alex Gerszewski, a public information officer for DOC, said a tightened budget affects more than just prisoners or prison guards.
“With incarceration rates continuing to increase, appropriations shrinking and mid-year budget cuts becoming the norm, something is eventually going to give,” he said. “We are warehousing inmates and putting our staff and the public in danger on a daily basis. Additionally, our probation and parole officers are supervising an average of 127 individuals per officer. We are past the tipping point.”
Since 2010, when CCA began collecting Quality Jobs payments, DOC has seen its yearly budget fall from $503 million to $481 million, according to DOC spokeswoman Teri Watkins. Meanwhile, population in DOC prisons has risen over the same time frame from 24,743 to 26,643.
On Thursday Allbaugh ordered a “hiring freeze” due to the budget constraints. The freeze will not affect prison guards, but it’s a dire signal for an understaffed agency struggling to offer competitive wages.
“In our state prison facilities, we are around 30 percent understaffed for security officer positions,” Michael Roach, Corrections Board Chairman, said. “On average, probation and parole officers are supervising 127 individuals per officer, with some caseloads being more. In the interest of public safety, we have to keep hiring these individuals.”